Circles or Straight Paths – Rev. Henry Brinton (with audio)
Circles or Straight Paths
December 7, 2014
At the beginning of the Gospel of Mark is a straight line. Not a circle, but a straight path. Point A to point B.
How different this is from the American arenas of the 1870s and 80s. Back then, the most popular of sports involved walking in circles on dirt tracks. Men and women raced around the clock for six days at a time, and the bleachers at these events were packed with spectators.
The sport was pedestrianism. Have you heard of it? It involved walking in circles, day after day after day. Many of you know that I’m a big fan of long-distance running and cycling, but even I would consider this to be extreme.
According to The Washington Post (March 30, 2014), these foot-races would last for 144 hours straight. Competitors would stop once in a while to take naps on cots, but aside from an occasional break they would push themselves to the edge of physical and mental collapse.
And the fans? They loved it! Watching people walk in circles was the best game in town. Without radios, record players, televisions or computers, people were desperate for distractions.
Competitive pedestrians were the country’s first celebrity athletes. Their pictures appeared on trading cards, and some received lucrative endorsement deals. Dan O’Leary, who won a race by walking 520 miles, was the spokesman for Dittman’s salt. John Hughes was sponsored by the National Police Gazette, and raced with the newspaper’s logo across the front of his shirt.
Not a Nike swoosh. Instead, a newspaper logo.
But by the end of the 1800s, pedestrianism was dead. Not because fans got bored with watching people walk in circles, but because of race fixing and doping. One famous pedestrian was caught chewing a substance that gave him an unsportsmanlike advantage — coca leaves.
He was the Lance Armstrong of pedestrianism. Busted for coca leaves.
Now we might laugh at competitive pedestrians, but we have to admit that we often find ourselves walking in circles as well. We keep eating the same kinds of junk food, and wonder why it’s hard to lose weight. We keep picking on family members in exactly the same way, and then are surprised by a blow-up or fight. We keep doing our work assignments in a repetitive manner, and then lament that we never advance in our careers. We worship with the same comfortable songs and prayers, and then complain that we don’t feel inspired.
We’re pedestrians! Moving in circles. In fact, one of the definitions of the word pedestrian is “lacking distinction, ordinary.” The time has come for us to break out of our endless loops and do something truly distinctive and extraordinary: Walk the straight path.
That’s a path I want to walk.
Mark tells us that the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begins with the appearance of John the baptizer. He is the one who fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Mark 1:1-3).
Make his paths straight, says Isaiah. Take the twists, turns and circles of life and stretch them out. Create a straight line to Jesus Christ, point A to JC. Move straight from where you are now, point A, to a new point called JC, Jesus Christ.
This straight path is a path in the Jesus direction. I’m not using the word in terms of sexuality, as in gay or straight. I’m not talking about being candid and direct, as in giving a straight reply. I’m not recommending that you be rigid politically, as in voting the straight party line. No, when I say “walk the straight path,” I mean move continuously in the Jesus direction.
John does this by “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 4). He challenges people to break out of the cycle of sinfulness by changing their minds and walking in a new direction — that’s the core meaning of “repentance,” from the Greek word metanoia. John invites people to turn around and take a new path, away from sin and toward Jesus Christ.
Here’s the interesting thing about the word “repentance” — it is not limited to being sorry. John isn’t asking people to feel sorry, but is challenging them to change their lives. John’s baptism of repentance is better translated as a baptism “to show that they had turned from their sins and turned to God” (New Living Translation). Or a baptism “to show that they were changing their hearts and lives” (Common English Bible). Or “A baptism of life-change” (The Message).
I like that last one best: “A baptism of life-change.” Because people were hungry for life-change, they flocked to see John. They wanted to break out of their self-destructive cycles and move in a new direction, so people from the Judean countryside and Jerusalem went out to him “and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (v. 5).
The people had a choice: Keep moving in circles or find a straight path. While the ordinary, pedestrian approach would be to keep walking in laps, large numbers decided to take an extraordinary step and go out to John, the one “clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt about his waist” (v. 6). He promised to put them in touch with Jesus, the one he said “is more powerful than I,” the one who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (vv. 7-8).
I think we need to give the people credit: They chose to break their sinful cycles and get on a straight path to Jesus. And we can make the same choice today.
As we move another week deeper into the Season of Advent, let’s turn to God, begin to change our hearts and lives, and experience a true life-change. Although our lives often feel like endless circles, we can replace our pedestrianism with a walk in the Jesus direction. Along this path, Jesus steers us and strengthens us.
First, Jesus steers us. He is ahead of us on the road, leading us in the right direction, toward a life of love, joy, peace and simplicity.
I need to walk this road of simplicity. Linda Douty, a retreat leader and spiritual director, tells me that “less is more” in the life of a Christian. Cluttered schedules and cluttered closets can lead to cluttered minds and cluttered spirits. “As we ascend the ladder of success,” she observes, “the pursuit of a more luxurious lifestyle starts to drive all our decisions. This starts eating up our time and money — until what we’re going to buy and where we’re going to go becomes our primary focus. Before we know it, our lives are dedicated to the maintenance of all our STUFF.”
I know that I need to unclutter my schedule and my closet if I’m going to unclutter my mind and my spirit. This is hard to do, especially during Advent and Christmas, when the days are so filled with celebrating and gift-buying. But I don’t want to allow my calendar and my shopping cart to prevent me from seeing where Jesus is steering me. I need to remember what George Strait once said in a song,
You don’t bring nothing with you here
And you can’t take nothing back
I ain’t never seen a hearse, with a luggage rack.
This path is a tough one to walk, but fortunately Jesus strengthens us. He baptizes us “with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8), filling us with his presence and power. The Spirit of Christ offers us love, joy, and peace, as well as “patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control” (Galatians 5:22-23). These spiritual gifts are the marks of a Christian life, and are the clearest signs that a person is moving along the path of Jesus.
When the people of Galilee were threatened by false prophets, Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). Not by their words, but by their fruits. He knew that some people talk a good game and make a positive impression, but they lack the integrity to produce anything worthwhile — they are examples of how “the bad tree bears bad fruit” (v. 17).
Speaking of bad fruit, do you know why the banana went to the doctor? It wasn’t peeling well.
And do you know what school subject is the fruitiest? History, because it is full of dates.
Bad jokes, yes, I admit it. But bad fruit is nothing to joke about. Bad fruit comes from lying and stealing, cutting corners and cheating. We see it all around us, and maybe within us as well. Bad fruit destroyed the sport of pedestrianism after competitors got mixed up in race fixing and doping. Once competitors raced only for the biggest payout, the entire sport collapsed.
The same can happen to us, if don’t repent, turn toward God, make a life-change, and get on the right track. Fortunately, the straight path is available to us, with Jesus steering us and strengthening us. If we walk the line with Jesus, we’ll be able to produce the kinds of fruits that will be good for us and good for everyone around us. We can be nourished for this walk in a new direction by receiving Communion this morning, in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Let’s get out of our endless loops, whatever they are, and walk in a new direction, point A to JC. Amen.
Algeo, Matthew. “Competitive walking was the national pastime until baseball came along.” The Washington Post, March 30, 2014, www.washingtonpost.com.
Douty, Linda R. “Getting from Sunday to Monday.” Stepping Stones for Spiritual Growth, 2002, www.explorefaith.org.